I will never apologize for liking the Wallflowers, ever. I know: they’re terminally uncool, sort of like Coldplay is in the UK (although they don’t draw the same level of vitriol as Martin et. al), and they only ever had that one good song anyway, right? Right?
Wrong, boyo. In 2000, the Wallflowers released an album completely different from 1996’s Bringing Down The Horse, which included the smash hit “One Headlight,” the song you probably remember them for. This new album was called (Breach). It marked a new direction for the band, with more personal lyrics and much sparser, simpler instrumentation; it evoked weird, dystopian landscapes and emotional isolation. It sounded nothing like the band’s previous work. It was phenomenal – and nobody bought it. The experiment was a failure. When the Wallflowers returned in 2002 with the (decidedly mediocre) Red Letter Days, their previous album was nigh-on erased.
This is a goddamned shame, because (Breach) is one of the best, the bravest, the most unsettling albums I’ve ever heard. It made a huge impression on me as a teenager (I bought it at 15 and nearly wore it out) and every time I return to it I’m re-amazed.
Listen to how it drops you in: the first track, “Letters From The Wasteland,” starts with an unsettling chord and a searching cymbal line, and frontman Jakob Dylan sounds suspicious and weary from the first word. “Now I send back letters from the wasteland home/where I slow-dance to this romance on my own.” Both lyrically and musically, the stage is set: (Breach) can be profoundly dark at times, merely gray at others, but it’s never not worth it.
Reviewers drew comparisons to Tom Petty and the Boss, most evident in the jangling guitar lines and minor chords. The band themselves had plenty to add; Rami Jaffee’s keyboard lines are central throughout, covering the album in unsettling prog-rock waves and contributing to the airs of restlessness and dissatisfaction. There’s rarely anything that could be called a payoff, in which chords resolve and the storyline ends on a happy note; characters muddle through their lives verse after verse, and the purposefully repetitive arrangements foster a sense of mistakes made over and over. On “Some Flowers Bloom Dead,” the song pivots around the single phrase, “How could you feel used when I feel trapped?” – a sentiment reinforced by the chorus “Some flowers never bloom/but some flowers just bloom dead.”
Other songs deal with broken relationships, personal vendettas and failures, and, on the particularly poignant “Hand Me Down,” the shortcomings of sons.
There is one bright light, about a third of the way through. “I’ve Been Delivered” starts with a simple keyboard motif that calls to mind a carnival merry-go-round. As the song progresses, the instrumentation builds, until six or seven sounds are jostling for place and the sense of being overwhelmed becomes inescapable. “Nothing’s hard as getting free from places/ I’ve already been,” Dylan grizzles in the first verse; later, he mourns that “I can’t fix something this complex/any more than I can build a rose.” By the end, however, his plea to leave the lights off has reversed – “Turn on your lights, cause I’m coming home/I’ve been delivered.”
(I can’t find a video anywhere for this song, but you can hear a clip from it on the album’s Amazon page.)
A timely Elvis Costello cameo raises the tone a bit on “Murder 101,” and the beautiful hidden lullaby after “Birdcage” is a gorgeous coda.
(Breach), as it unfolds itself, stands on its own feet: a strike into the unknown, a wobbly salvo against the band’s cowboy-pop of the mid-90s, a darker lens on Dylan’s life. It’s such a brave move for any band to make, to turn their backs on the sounds that made them famous and made them money, and to succeed at turning the whole machine on its head. In its own little way, (Breach) is a masterpiece.
PUBLIC SERVICE ANNOUNCEMENT: After a six year hiatus, the Wallflowers are releasing a new album, Glad All Over. It comes out next month. I am unreasonably excited about this. Especially if the titular song turns out to be a Dave Clark Five cover.